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Archive for August, 2013

Edenic

with 6 comments

I spent a great deal of time and trouble this summer trying to make sure I would have my book done before classes started up for fall term.  

That worked out in the way in which that kind of thing always worked out.  Not only was I not finished by the end of the term, I’m farther behind than I usually am in this stage of the run up to my deadline.

I sometimes think there is a part of my brain that is doing this subconsciously but on purpose.

Actually, there is a lot my brain is doing subconsciously but on purpose these days, but that’s the topic for another post.

My schedule being what it is this term, with the writing and the classes and other commitments elsewhere, I am once again faced with the Fridays From Hell.

They start with an early morning writing Gregor and are then followed by a three hour long 8 o’clock in the morning class in which everybody in the room (possibly including me) looks game to give it a try but mired in something like shell shock.

We will, I think, make it all work, but it’s going to be a very interesting ride.

Needless to say, when I finally got home after class and office hours and everything else, I was in that state of mental fuzzy wool that makes your forehead feel numb. 

I was also at the very end of a book, meaning

55) Erle Stanley Gardner.  The Case of the Blonde Bonanza.

I truly love all things Perry Mason, and I was recently delighted to discover that there’s actually an annual Perry Mason convention, but this particular book is a late entry in the series and a little thin.

That said, you should all be aware that my friend Jeffrey Marks is coming up with a biography of Erle Stanley Gardner fairly soon. 

Anyway, here I was at the very end of a book which, in spite of its complete lack of material for mental exercise, was feeling very hard to get through. 

Me being me, however, the possibility of just getting through the rest of the evening without reading anything was not an option. 

Unfortunately, since I’m doing Real Writing, neither were several other options I sometimes use in similar situations.  I cannot manage to write through anything I read. 

For some reason, reading some things just makes writing harder for me. 

One of those things, some of the time, are the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes stories are my default setting for “can’t think of what I want to read next.”

So there I was. Sitting on the love seat.  Listening to West Wing Season 4 blasting behind my head on DVD.  Sending up little pleas to the cosmos that the single best writer of fiction I’d had in any class in years wouldn’t be one of the ones who just disappeared by midterm.

At that point, I decided to annoy my younger son by announcing that I needed some help looking through my TBR file.  “I want to look through my TBR pile and I don’t know what I want” has the same status in this house as the nuclear attack sirens going off elsewhere.

Nevertheless, we got down to it, and what I finally settled on–something short that would allow me to pick up something longer in the morning–was George Steiner’s “Archives of Eden.”

Yes, all right, I know.  Steiner is not something light.  Ever.

But as anybody who has been reading this blog for a while already knows, I have read this particular essay of Steiner’s several times already.  I have a fascination with it, and with its central idea, and even with several of its subsidiary ideas.

And every time I read it, I find something I haven’t noticed before.

For those of you who have not read this thing, or the other blog posts about it, Steiner’s central point is that great art and great culture are impossible in a democratic country, because great art and great culture are fundamentally and uncompromisingly elitist.

Very few people are born with the capable of truly understanding either, and even fewer people are born with the capacity to do either.

Under the term “high culture,” Steiner includes things like physics and theoretical mathematics. 

That gets us into interesting territory in some ways. 

The idea that theoretical mathematics belongs to an elite, and that very few people are born capable of understanding it or doing it, is uncontroversial.  The stanchest democratic leveler seems to be capable of recognizing that most people are never going to understand Fermat’s Theorem.

The controversy over the elitism of high culture comes in other areas, like those of the arts, where the judgments of what is “high” and what is otherwise can be contested. 

And are.

But the controversial parts of Steiner’s essay are not this.  They come with his corollaries, once this–high culture being always and everywhere the province of a small elite–is stipulated.

(And I think it can be stipulated.  You may or may not think that Picasso or Dvorak is great art, but you can recognize that the existence of such people and the audience for their work is a minority group in every society everywhere.)

Once you agree that high culture belongs to a minority in every society, though, Steiner asks you to contemplate three things:

1) It is possible that high culture not only does not make people better people, but that it may actually make them worse.  There is an odd and persistant correlation between high culture and the worst forms of political savagery.

Unlike a lot of writers on high culture, Steiner does not try to gloss over the fact that many of his examples of high culture excellence and transcendance were also very bad people–that Heidigger was a member of the Nazi Party and personally involved in the persecution of Jews; that Sartre was an apologist for Stalin and something of a Nazi collaborator during the War.

And he asks the question.  Maybe an involvement with high culture does not only not make you better.  Maybe it makes you worse.

2) Even if it doesn’t make people worse, societies in which the high culture elite is in charge and can impose the standard on everybody else lives stunted lives relative not only to the elites but to those of citizens in a democratic country like that United States. 

If our object is to make life decent and livable for most of our citizens, then a democratic culture–a democratic ethos–is what we need to get us there.

But we should recognize, when we do that, that we are condemning high culture to, at best, a thing of the past, dead as a doornail, imprisoned in museums and treated as an historical curiosity.

3) And then the kicker–in spite of the betterness of democratic culture for nearly everybody, in spite of the possibility that the encouragement of high culture is in some way related to the worst (Nazi, Soviet) political outcomes every invented–

In spite of all that, we should side with high culture anyway, because what we lose by not doing so is the only thing that makes life worth living, and the only think that makes human beings actually human.

High art, the abstract realms of metaphysics, the pure science of mathematics and physics–these are the things that make human beings human, what distinguish them from beasts.

To give Steiner his due–and he deserves all the due we give him–he isn’t really comfortable with this last thing. 

He did, after all, come to the US as a child as part of a family that was trying to outrun the Nazis.  Every last member of his extended family who did not make it here died in the camps.

He is such a beautiful writer that it took me several run through to realize how incoherent so much of this essay is.

At one point, he goes off on a riff about immigrants and what they really were.  We’re told all about heroic immigrants, but the poem says tired and poor and huddled masses–and maybe that’s just what they were. 

Ordinary people.  Not heroes.  Just the lumpen mass. Not very bright.  Not very anything.

To somebody who was brought up with the American idea, this just seems silly.

Yes, of course they were just ordinary people, just like the waves of Latinos coming up from South America now are just ordinary people.

But I always thought the history of immigration in the United States was a testament to just how much ordinary people could do.

The real lumpen mass of Europe didn’t consist of the people who came here. It consisted of the people who stayed, who responded to misery and oppression with passivity and patience.

It’s not a small thing to rip up your life, leave everything and most of everybody you know, and start all over again in an alien place.

I kept trying to figure out if Steiner was distressed to think he was classes with all these ordinary people who could not understand philosophy, or if his own passage to American, having been under more comfortable circumstances, didn’t let him see what most people who make the journey put themselves through to make it.

(My Greek relatives, and the Greeks I meet in Greece, are entirely distainful of “Greek Americans.” Obviously, only lower class people went to America. And that is, of course, quite true.   I do think it’s not lost on any of us, though, who is providing what to whom at the moment, or how likely this situation is ever to reverse itself.)

But the really big thing I noticed this time that I hadn’t noticed before is the fact that the world he thinks he’s nostalgic about, the world of artists doing art not for the money but for the passion of it, of standards of value not based on cash or professionalism or conspicuous consumption but oriented to the practice and experience of the art itself–

Such places and communities exist right now in the United States–several of them do.

They just exist in places and among people and with kinds of art Steiner doesn’t know exists, and, if he did, would probably declare didn’t count.

I’m not saying that the vast variegated content of science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, romance and the rest of the genres is the artistic equivalent of Dostoyevsky or Stravinksy.

I’m saying that to the extent that what he wants is a certain kind of communal approach to the art, it can be found these days in those genres.

The last thing is a little more speculative.

Steiner in this essays bemoans the fact that America “archives” all the past artistic achievements of Europe, but does not expand on it, does not produce new high art of its own.

But I wonder if that has anything to do with America.

It seems to me that many of the specific forms of high art are dead or dying everywhere. 

There are few great painters these days–maybe none–because the social function of painting is no longer what it was. That social function has been taken over by photography, and there are some truly astonishing (and, yes, high art) advances in photographic art.

Maybe the old forms have simply run their course, which happens.

Maybe some of the old forms have found new and different kinds of outlets and audiences (think John Williams in music).

I don’t really have any answers to those last questions.  I haven’t thought about them enough.

But there’s my Saturday.

Written by janeh

August 31st, 2013 at 11:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

First Day of School

with one comment

Okay, I am now officially running late.

But here’s this

http://thebaffler.com/past/academy_fight_song

perfect for the first day of school.

The guy who wrote it is so market-obsessed that he literally doesn’t see how government policy drives the expansion of university administrations.

So this is only half the necessary analysis.

It’s still a pretty good half.

I go off to meet students…

 

 

Written by janeh

August 29th, 2013 at 7:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Snarking the English Major

with 3 comments

I have reached that point in the run up to the new term where I begin to wonder if I actually want to produce a syllabus.

This is the product of frustration.  When I stand back and look at it rationally, I know I want to produce a syllabus.  The syllabus is the first line of defense against what I think of as the “anyway A.”

That’s the student who has not handed in anything for weeks or months an wants an “A anyway.” 

The first line of attack by such students is almost always the complaint that they couldn’t do the reading because they weren’t in class to get the assignment.  Ah, I say, but it’s on the syllabus.

This does not put an end to the problem, by any means, but it does slow it down a little.

Okay, not as much as we’d all like, but you see what I mean.

Having become frustrated with the syllabus, however, I went looking around the web, and I found something…well, something.

Before I get into that, however, I’d like to stress one point from yesterday.

If the English department was to do what the arts program does, it would NOT provide the kind of thing Robert was talking about in terms of the close reading of books.

It would provide instead classes in creative writing.  Our arts programs are about DOING art, not learning about its history or analysis.

A little of the history and analysis stuff may go on as well, but it’s never the point of the program in any of those departments.

The other point is this:  at places like mine, there are no science and math and engineering programs. 

Math tops out at something called “college algebra,” which is just the algebra my sons got in seventh and eighth grades, but with more expensive textbooks.

But, as to the something interesting, whichDOES have to do with the history and analysis:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/why-teach-english.html
 
One of the things that made me like this essay so much is that it is baldfacedly, unashamedly what it is:  lots and lots of us like to read and talk about books, so we should do that.
 
On one level, I wholeheartedly agree.  I’ve never had a lot of use for utilitarian approaches to higher education, and I’ve said that often enough so that it shouldn’t come as a shock.
 
On another level, though, I think this is–well, misguided may not be the exactly right word.
 
I think it is very difficult to do the kind of thing he’s talking about here in a university classroom, not because the classroom has become politicized, but because it’s a classroom.
 
I am enough of a writer-type-person to find the endless niggling details of classroom “close reading” to be positively destructive of the one thing reading a work of fiction ought to be:  a chance to get lost in the lives of people and places utterly unlike the ones you already know.
 
Sometimes there is no help for it.  We are far enough forward in time from Troy, say, so that some information on the concept of honor in pre-classical Greece would come in handy.
 
But even as I write that, I’m not so sure.  People here who read science fiction and fantasy constantly remind me that they are capable of reading about people and places that have never existed and figuring out the social mores and moral codes and all the rest of it just from context.
 
Certainly my sons do that, and in a different way I do it too.  I do not automatically search out critical and historical materials when I read a novel whose setting or time is one I’m not familiar with.
 
One of the issues with reading books at least theoretically set in realistic places–that is, books written in the here and now as the here and now applied to the authors–is that it might be hard to work out the author’s intent, or even his meaning, without knowing something about its context.
 
But I’ve begun to wonder if that isn’t beside the point, too.
 
It’s a gesture of respect for the writer to know what he actually had to say, instead of just what we think he had to say, but reality says that the time will come for every writer everywhere when all that information will be lost, and all that will be left are the words on the page.
 
Long before that, we’ll lose something else:  the ability to determine the actual quality of the prose. 
 
Languages change.  They don’t change as fast as they used to, but they still change.
 
I read middle English fairly fluently, and I have no idea if Chaucer wrote beautiful, musical poetry or the kind of stuff that makes English teachers want to ban some people from writing altogether.
 
To be more controversial:  I think the same thing is true by now for Shakespeare.
 
When most English speakers were brought up reading the King James Version,  I think it was possible to keep Elizabethan English alive as a living medium.
 
People so brought up could respond to the language naturally, without the need for translation.
 
These days, even Protestants don’t use the KJV.  Most of my kids not only can’t tell if Shakespeare’s poetry is beautiful or awful, they don’t even know what it means.
 
If I was going to look for a place to explore the joys of reading as described in this article, I wouldn’t look for it in an English classroom.
 
I wouldn’t look for it there no matter what the nature of the fiction being taught.
 
The problem, for me at least, would not be science fiction vs literary or heroic fantasy vs modernism.
 
The problem would be in the approach, which persists in taking anything it touches and turning it into a set of problems.
 
The result is that nobody experiences the book.  They instead learn to attack it like an alien object to be scrutinized dispassionately–sort of like that dead frog being disected in biology.
 
Maybe this is why I don’t have the interest in literary criticism that some of you have here. 
 
It always feels to me as if somebody is trying to kill the book dead so that it will stop wriggling and let itself be examined.
 
 

Written by janeh

August 28th, 2013 at 8:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Dog Star

with 4 comments

Sometimes I find it very discouraging that the seasons just keep going around and around the way they do. You get used to one of them and the next one shows up. You settle into one schedule and then you have to rip your biological clock into shreds for the next.

It’s the end of August, and that means school is about to start up again. Due to a late scheduling change–a good one, one I was really happy to see happen–I suddenly find myself with three early mornings instead of one, and I’m running around like a chicken trying to get up Blackboard sites up and running on time.

Even though we know that Blackboard sites don’t really want to be up and running at all, and there has been yet another update to the system.

But getting all this stuff done this morning has made me think about all this again, and I’d like to stress the part I don’t usually talk about this morning.

I’ve never been the kind of libertarian whose attitude amounts to “privatize everything, the government is Satan.”

My main objection to the welfare state has always been to the problem of mission creep and power overload–to the tendency of welfare state provisions to become the excuse for expanded government power grabs into matters of social control.

“We have to pay for it” has always been, and always will be, the preferred excuse for expanding government power into private life. 

But at the same time that always has, and always will be, and intractable problem, I sometimes find myself wishing that it wasn’t one, or at least wasn’t one that seems so damned insoluble.

I tend to be in favor of things like public parks, and public libraries, that are Just Kind of Neat Things To Have Around, and that seem to me to be things communities should be able to provide for themselves without engaging in a death march to totalitarian micromanagement.

And yes, I do realize that we don’t seem to be able to avoid the death march thing. 

I still wish we could find a way to supply these things without it.

One of those things I wish we could find a way to supply in something we do supply near in the State of Connecticut–courses and training and performances in the fine arts.

To get a little more specific here:  Connecticut community colleges offers courses in painting, sculpture, dance (yes, dance), music, theater, you name it, and also provides theaters, galleries and concert halls for student and faculty performances and exhibitions.

I’m sure that there are plenty of you out there ready to tell me that I have already said, many times, that these are not proper academic subjects.

And I agree with myself.  They’re not.

But the fact that they aren’t proper academic subjects doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be offered for instruction, or that they shouldn’t be available for public viewing and performance, if there is a demand for that in the community at large.

As far as I can tell, there is an enormous demand for all that in this particular community.  Our fine arts courses are the most heavily subscribed of any courses we offer, far more heavily subscribed than even are basic-level certificate courses in various strictly vocational fields (think auto mechanic).

I think some of this has to do with the fact that there are a lot of alternatives to getting your community college certificate in Medical Billing Procedures or Paralegal Services.  Not only are there private universities in the area that offer the same sorts of things, but there are also lots of for-profit tech schools, online universities, and on the job training at local businesses.

But part of the reason for the popularity of these courses and venues has to be that the taste for the fine arts is considered to be a minority one, and it’s also considered, by many of the town Boards of Education, to be a trivial one.

This is Connecticut, so the first thing we cut in a school budget crunch is sports, but the second thing we cut is definitely the arts.

And although there are private universities with arts programs, the good and extensive ones (think Yale) are both expensive and hard to get into, and the weaker ones are sketchy and  just as expensive.

I live in a place where pockets of rural poverty and bigger parts of small-city urban depression mean that the money really, really, really matters.

But it is not, of course, just the poor who use these programs.  If it was, they probably wouldn’t exist for long.

Lots of middle class–and even upper middle class–students use these programs.  They learn to play Bach and Mozart.  They mount exhibitions of painting and sculpture.  They stage productions of Shakespear and Gilbert and Sullivan and their own student or faculty plays.

They have a very good time. They rack up virtually nothing in student loan debt.   Lots of people show up for performances and exhibitions. 

And everybody seems to be happy.

I wondered for a while why the state legislature went along with all this.  It’s expensive to maintain a professional-standard musical theater facility, never mind what the tab for all those plastic arts materials must look like.

I’ve decided that the programs are benefiting from the one way in which they are distinctly differen from the rest of the public university system.

They’re completely and utterly non politicized.

I don’t mean they haven’t been politicized by the politicians, although they haven’t been.

I mean they don’t seem to have been politicized by their faculties.  They programs aren’t turning out endless statements about the centrality to everything of gender, race and class. They’re aren’t refusing to teach Scarlatti or Beethoven because they were Dead White Males. 

They’re just doing what they do, and people who love it come in droves.

Looking around me at the world I live in, I’m not sure it would even be possible to reach this state of affairs in the other departments and programs of the university.

I do think there’s a chance that something like this is going on in the departments that award those vocational certificates, but thosecertificates are bedrock practical in a way the fine arts are not.

I do know that the fine arts programs seem to me to be a very good deal for my tax money, and I know that I’m not alone.

I wonder if the people who run the other divisions of our system every wonder about the fact that nobody in Hartford is every screaming and yelling about defunding the Fundamentals of the Orchestra course or why, if students are so relentlessly vocational they can’t see the point in the lieral arts, nobody has to require any of these arts courses in order to see them fill right up.

In my experience, people rarely ask questions they don’t think they already have the answers to, somebody out there ought to try to answer this one.

While any English course not specifically required for graduation has trouble getting enough students to run,and any literature course is a no go from the start; while philosophy runs only because WesConn will take it as a distribution requirement (and only the one course runs); while professors of everything and pundits on the right and left and posters to blogs like this one declare that you have to be a trust fund baby to go in for all that stuff that’s useless in the job market–

Here we are, with classes crammed to the gills with students who want to learn things they know will only serve them in their private lives, and to learn things with difficulty levels exponentially higher than anything they will ever be asked to do in their “rigorous” academic subjects.

You’d think somebody, somewhere, would pay attention.

Written by janeh

August 27th, 2013 at 11:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Goods, Public and Otherwise

with 5 comments

So yesterday was one of those days–I kept getting links to various blog posts and op ed pieces and articles, and I kept reading them and getting headaches.

One of those headaches had the distinction of being a time bomb, something that doesn’t happen to me often at this stage of the came.

I agreed entirely with the man’s first three points–and then found myself plunged into hackneyed drivel for most of the last five.  The title was something along the lines of “8 Reasons Why Young People Are So Conformist,” and the first three were great. Student debt! ODD (oppositional defiant disorder)! 

Then we got into Evil Corporations and media turning students into zombies.

I’d post a link to it if I could, but I can’t remember the name of it well enough to find it again.  It’s a picture perfect example of someone who can see the problem, but is so mired in his ideological dogma that he can’t see the solution, or even imagine what it might be. 

But as interesting as that one was, it wasn’t the link that really caught by attention.

The link that really caught my attention was this one

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-reich/privatization-government-cuts_b_3797449.html

and I’ve got a note before I start.

The piece is by Robert Reich, and Robert Reich is on my List.

The List is a mental one, but I don’t need to write it down. I always remember who’s on it.

It consists of people I find so ideologically entrenched that they’re entirely predictable, and it includes people like Ann Coulter and Paul Krugman.

Krugman is, I think, the worst of the lot, because his unbroken note of self-righteousness is hard to read even just as prose.  Coulter may be a troll, but at least she’s sometimes funny.

Reich isn’t as high up on my list as either Krugman or Coulter, but he’s definitely on that list. And he’s on it for the same reason everybody else is on it:  I already know what he’s going to say, and I already know how he’s going to be wrongheaded.

When somebody ends up on my list, I don’t banish them to outer darkness and refuse to ever read them again.  I just restrict my reading to times and places and topics that seem especially interesting, or that enough of the people who friend me on FB seem to want everybody to read.

It was that last thing that got me to read this, and I can’t say it produced much originality, and it certainly produced no surprise.  It was mostly the same old same old.

People used to care about the public good, but they don’t anymore.  People used to be willing to fund institutions that were useful to everybody–public schools, roads and bridges, libraries, state universities with low tuition–and they’re not any more.

This is the fault of rich people, who no longer want to be part of society, but above it.  But it actually started with middle class tax revolts.   But that doesn’t matter, because the tax revolts really started because middle class incomes were stagnating because rich people were milking the system, so it’s all the fault of the 1% and the Evil Corporations, even if it almost seemed there for a minute as if it wasn’t.

I want to suggest something that might be uncomfortable:  the slide didn’t start in the 80s, or even in the 70s. It started in 1948, and picked up steam in the 60s.

And it wasn’t the result of the decline in middle class incomes, but of the decline in middle class autonomy.

Do you know what happened in 1948? In 1948, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in a case called McCollum v. Board of Education.

It was a decision with minor implications on a practical and immediate level–only some states allowed “release time” for students to go to religious instruction during the school day–but that had major implications for the long run.

That was the case that served notice that public school policy would be taken out of the hands of local jurisdictions and the families of childrenattending them, and placed in the power of faraway institutions whose ideas, culture and values were alien to the actual persons using the actual institutions.

Now, before I go on, let me make one thing clear:  the fact that such decisions from on high alienate the man in the street does not, in and of itself, mean that those decisions should never be made.

There are situations in which those decisions must be made, as they were made in the segregation cases.

But even when those decisions are absolutely necessary, their effects remain the same.

The less control people have over their instutions, the less committed to them they will be. 

After several decades of top-down decisionmaking on virtually every point of public school policy, most parents (and most nonparent members of local communities) no longer think of their local public schools as belonging to them, and certainly don’t feel that way about their state universities.

Instead, such “institutions” are in the control of faraway people who do not share even the most trivial of the local communities’s culture and values–people eat tofu instead of hamburgers, listen to NPR instead of country music, drive foreign cars instead of domestic ones.

When it comes to the major issues–religion, sex, even foreign policy–the two cultures are now so divergent, they might as well exist on different planets.

It’s important to remember that it doesn’t matter if the decisions you want to make for other people’s lives are good or bad, right or wrong, true or false.

You can be on the side of the angels every step of the way, and the effect will still be the same. 

You cannot get people to support “public” institutions they do not recognize as public, that they perceive as being imposed on them from outside by an alien and hostile force.

This was why the New Deal was the way it was–FDR and his people were very careful never to impose their values on local communities.

And that led to some very bad things, including segregation and voting rights violations, that needed to be and were finally stopped.

But FDR knew what everybody today seems to have forgotten–you cannot have a top-down welfare state for long.  Eventually, people who feel coerced will find some way to get out from under and do it their way once again.

It isn’t the rich 1% who are driving the abandonment ofpublic institutions.  It’s the middle and working class.

Am I really the only person who noticed what I think is the most curious fact about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?

The entire incident took place in one of those infamous “gated communities,” but wasn’t a gated community full of 1%-ers.  It was a gated community that was home to working class people, including a fair number of working class minorities.

And that brings us to the other difficult issue here: if you want a robust welfare state, diversity is not your friend.

Stop ventilating for a moment, and clear your head of all the “OMG, America is so racist and everything and…”

The issue isn’t race or ethnicity, but culture.

Look around you.  The world’s most successful welfare states are two things:  small, and virtually monocultural.

That is not an accident.  Smaller populations have more of a sense of being personally responsible for the people in their communities.  Monocultures mean that everybody is playing by the same unstated rules.

 A culture in which most people feel that welfare ought to be there, but that it is shameful to take it except in a real emergency is going to do some very weird things if it suddenly acquires a significant minority who think welfare is just great and we should milk it for all we can.

It’s going to do especially weird thing if that minority is in any way ethnically, racially or religiously different from the majority.

You can see some of those weirdnesses these days in Sweden, which has acquired a large Muslim immigrant minority that not only takes much more advantage of welfare state provision than ordinary Swedes, but that also refuses to play by Swedish rules on things like the rights of women and the freedoms of speech and conscience.

What’s resulted is police no-go zones and suggestions that honor killings ought to be respected as authentic parts of Muslim culture that should not be interfered with by government authorities.

America lasted as a multicultural society as long as it did precisely because it wasn’t one. It was a melting pot, not a salad bowl, and every level of that society was focussed on making sure that children (immigrant and otherwise) were converted to that society and became dedicated parts of it.

You didn’t need to legislate English as the national language, every official document was already in English and nothing else, there were no bilingual classrooms, it was learn the language or die.

The same went for your tastes in music, movies, and food and your commitment to sucking it up when you were drafted and a hundred other things. You learned to blend in, or you were SOL.

After you did that, we’d adopt the food as our own, which is why tacos and pizza are “American” food.

And all along the line, the message was solidly fixed on the idea that America was a good place, that her people were good people and her policies were just, and if you didn’t toe that line  you were likely to get beat up in the schoolyard.

I am not saying we should go back to a regime like that.

I am saying that only BY going back to a regime like that–to local control of local institutions AND a melting pot vision of immigration AND a concerted effort to instill patriotism–can we get what Robert Reich wants here, a nation of people who want to provide “public goods” rather than finding private avenues to get their needs met.

I will also say that I don’t see what is immediately clear which policy is the one any of us wants here, or which policy is the compromise we’d think worth it to make.

I’m just saying that what we can never have is a society where all the big decisions are made by a culturally alien elite AND a society where most people are thinking about the common good, or one where there is lots of cultural diversity AND most people are thinking about the common good, OR–

Well, you get the picture.

Written by janeh

August 25th, 2013 at 9:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Well, Now

with one comment

Sometimes I get up in the morning, do my work, check my mail, and it’s as if nothing in the world has happened. I don’t even have mail from work.

Over night last night, on the other hand, a lot seems to have happened.   So let me see if I can address some of the points.

First, the easy one.  To answer Cheryl’s question about why some US judges give sentences in excess of any amount of time anybody could actually live:

In several US states, there are laws on the books that require that all prisoners be eligible for parole after serving one third of their sentences.

In many of these same states, a “life” (not “life without parole”) sentence is presumed to be 25 years, which means a third of the sentence is about 8 years total.

This does not mean that the state HAS to parole prisoners after a third of their sentences are served, and in fact it usually takes a couple of tries before a prisoner is paroled.

Back in the late 70s, however, there were several high profile cases where people who had committed things like murder and serial rape were released on parole after sometimes as little as 3 years, only to “re-offend,” as it’s put, almost immediately.

This was upsetting for all the obvious reasons, and what emerged eventually was this. If the guy has already committed six rapes and state law only allows 10 to 15 on any one count, you give him the whole set consecutively and the earliest they can let him out is after 30.

It’s one of those things.  I’m not really sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it’s perfectly legal.  On the other, it obviously amounts to circumventing the intent of the law, which really was trying not to overcriminalze some things and to provide avenues for rehabilitation.

Of course, after the eighth or ninth rape, I’m not sure that’s an option anyway.

As to the other things:

I know that the theory is that we only charge people with “hate crimes” if we think we can’t get a sufficient sentence for anything else, but in the real world that’s simply not true.

We most often charge people with “hate crimes” when we want to “send a message,” and even if we’re sure we’re going to get the death penalty for the guy on trial.

There wasn’t a chance in hell that the killers of Mathew Shepard were going to go free, but there was universal outrage across the country that Wyoming had no hate crimes law and therefore the perpetrators couldn’t be charged with it.

It’s also absolutely certainly the case that if the murderer of Christopher Lane had been white and Lane himself had been black, a hate crimes charge would have been automatically in the works.

What I find disturbing is the official resistance to such a charge, on the assumption that when a black person makes racist statements about his intent in a crime we are to disregard those as just posturing, but a simple difference in race when a white person kills someone is to be assumed to be racially motivated.

It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask why that is so, and if it should be so–and I say that in spite of the fact that I would get rid of all “hate crimes” legislation if I could, even in the attentuated form we have in the US.

We shouldn’t be criminalizing thoughts and ideas, and if we can’t get the defendant on the substantive charge, we shouldn’t be providing prosecutors with a back door to get him anyway.

As to the “is the system biased against minorities” thing–

Well, first, I’m with whoever said that they don’t take the SPLC seriously.  I haven’t, either, for at least the last 20 years. 

Yes, I know they did heroic work during the Civil Rights era, but for decades now they’ve been not just tendentious, but downright dishonest, with no interest in truth, justice or fairness if it gets in the way of self righteous indignation.

That does not say, of course, that there is no racism in the criminal justice system.

The endless math doesn’t speak to me at all, but I’m with Cheryl in believing that telling me that X group has a higher incarceration rate than Y group tells me nothing in particular.

If X group commits crimes at a higher rate than Y group, then X group SHOULD have higher incarceration rates.

But I do know something about one of these issues–“mandatory minimums” aren’t as simple as you’d think.

A lot of them require other factors beside the crime itself to kick in.  A lot of the drug charges, for instance, especially for smallish amounts, only trigger mandatory minimums if the perpetrator is ALSO found with weapons at the time of arrest.

There are some other factors in some of them, but the bottom line is that in order to find out if the law is being applied in a racially discriminatory way, it’s necessary to find out if suspects are being arrested under the same set of circumstances while white defendants are having their gun possession (or whatever) ignored.

FWIW, I do not think that there is any racial bias going on in law enforcement and criminal justice in a systemic way, and certainly not in a systematic way.

BUT–I do think that juries have an emotional tendency to be more likely to convict when the defendant scares them, and I think that the media is so full of stories about young black males doing God knows what, a jury–and especially a jury of women, and not just white women–will tend to be emotionally prone to convict from off.

But the issue isn’t that simple, either, because juries tend to be emotionally prone to convict ANYWAY.  It’s really appalling how many jurors will insist that if the police arrested the guy, he must have done SOMETHING.

And that’s black or white or Hispanic, male or female or whatever.

Of course, living out here, I have something of a skewed perspective.

We don’t have a lot of minorities in the rural communities around me, and fromwhat I can tell we seem to arrest and convict lots of white drug dealers and meth makers.

And they don’t get treatment.

I always thought that was a class thing, not a race thing.  And I thought that was what was going on in the coke/crack thing.

The important issue at the bottom of it all was that the people likely to offend were rich or poor, not black or white–lawyers like us use cocaine, poor people use crack, or meth. 

It is Saturday, and there are Things To Do.

Written by janeh

August 24th, 2013 at 11:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Nowhere News

with 20 comments

Yesterday was Thursday, and as on every Thursday, we got our issue of our little weekly newspaper.

And, interestingly enough, there was actually some news in it–the cops in a local town had made one of their very infrequent serious drug busts; and a guy in a parking lot of a 7-11, seeing a police car pull in, took off backwards at high speed and nearly ran down an officer before he was apprehended.

This is a lot of serious crime for our area, but it has to be balanced by the rest of that newspaper’s first page.

There was a story about how another local town really hopes it’s going to get a new gas station.

There was also a story about the Touch a Truck program, which had appeared at a local library, so that kids could get to walk around inside ambulances and other…vehicles.

That second thing appeared above the fold.

Unfortunately, the rest of my news day was not so strikingly…rural.

The unrural news was, of course, not local, or even close to local–although the thing about the firefighter who’d threatened another firefighter with a gun inside the firehouse happened in New Haven, and the town that won a discrimination lawsuit because it rejected a candidate for its police force as too smart seems to have been New London.

Those were not the two big stories.

The two big stories were, first, the killing of an Australian college baseball player by three “teenagers” who declared that they’d done it because they were just bored.

And second, killing an 88 year old veteran of WWII by two other teenagers who beat him to death outside his favorite lodge hall in Spokane, Washington.

There’s a lot going on with these stories that is disturbing as hell, not the least of which is the fact that both killings seem to be the modern equivalent of joy riding.

They haven’t found the perpetrators of the second crime as I write, but they do have security camera video of them, and they don’t look like anybody the victim could be connected to.

In other words, the second crime looks at least as “random” as the first.

But as disturbing as sociopaths are, there’s more going on here than that, and worse news.

In the first case–the Australian college student playing baseball for a university in Oklahoma–it looks as if the choice of victim was not entirely random.

One of the two perpetrators had posted messages to FB and several tweets declaring that all white people are nasty and he hated them.

It’s almost assuredly the case that, if the assailants had been white and the victim black, the assailants would be being charged with a hate crime as we speak.

This would also almost assured been the case in a third incident, this one if Florida, where three black kids beat up a white one while the bus driver sat still and waited for help to come.

The fact that no hate crimes charges have been filed in either of these cases has become an enormous deal on the right, with Fox news and Rush Limbaugh and other predictable players beating the drums over Media Bias and even Prosecutorial Bias.

Also Presidential Bias and Al Sharpton Bias and…you get the picture.

But none of our media here is actually talking about the racial aspects of any of these cases, and one of the weirdest things about the reporting is the way the words and the pictures clash.

The text always focusses tightly on “teenagers,” with no other descriptive allowed anywhere near the word.  The pictures, on the other hand, are unambiguously racial. You spend three minutes reading about “teenagers” and look up to find yourself staring into a solid wall of black faces, minus one (the kid who drove the getaway car in the Oklahoma case is white).

In the meantime, the Australian press is talking nonstop about the racial issue in these cases, although it’s also talking about US “gun culture,” complete with irrelevant statistics.

And that includes suggesting that the death of the Australian baseball player was the result of a kind of pay back for the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case.

It’s not that I think the Australians are right in thinking there might be a connection between these random killings and the Trayvon Martin case.

It’s that I think almost everybody here is thinking the same thing but refusing to talk about it.

Let’s leave the gun violence thing for a moment. Two of the three incidents involved barefisted beatings, with no guns in sight.

I presume that for at least some reporters, and some outlets, the reason not to face the race question here boils down to a desperate attempt not to feed into white stereotypes about young black men.

But although that impulse is laudable as an intention, it’s really a bad idea in actual practice.

No matter what these reporters and websites and news outlets want, the one thing they cannot have is a world in which nobody notices the race of the perpetrators involved.

Race is going to get noticed, whether anybody wants it to be or not.  Playing pretend that it isn’t there doesn’t lower the levels of anxiety in white, Asian and other Americans about young black men, it increases it.

It’s like surpressing any other kind of fear–when you won’t talk about it, or think about it, or look at it, or discuss it, what you do instead is to exaggerate it.

There is very little else that you can do, because exaggeration becomes the only option open to you.

If we are at a point where relations between the races are such that young black men are targetting whites for being white and young white men are targetting blacks for being black–then we need to say something about it.  And if there is more targetting being done on one side rather than the other, we need to say that, too.

We’re not going to fix anything if we refuse to face it.

We may find, of course, that what’s going on here is something else entirely, only tangentially related to race.

But we can’t know anything unless we look at reality plainly and deal with what we see there.

If we leave everything up to our imaginations, our imaginations will produce for us an updated version of Apocalypse Now.

And that’s not going to make anything any better for anybody, ever.

Written by janeh

August 23rd, 2013 at 8:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Test Match

with 4 comments

This morning, after I was finished with actual work (and mailed that work to myself  in case the entire computer went kablooey), I came across this:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/08/16/how-students-are-being-set-up-to-fail/

This is an article about the first test results using the new Common Core, which is a curriculum promulgated by  the Department of Education that can be, but does not  have to be, adopted by state and local school districts.

Let me start by saying that I know nothing about the specifics of this curriculum.  I am neither in favor nor opposed to it.

My first instinct is to be generally skeptical of it, because part of me can’t believe it isn’t going to be yet another exercise in gender-race-and-class indoctrination.

For the moment,  however, that’s less important to me that some of the other things in this article.

The first of  these is a statement, about halfway to two thirds of the way down the article, that says it’s not fair to set the standards of the qualifying test so that a “pass” is equivalent to a “proficient” rating on the NAEP exams–a “proficient on those exams, the article says, is the equivalent to an A on schoolwork, and if we think we can bring all students up to an A, we’re crazy.

But here’s the thing–the rating of “proficient” is  not an A on the NAEP tests.  That takes a rating of “advanced.”  “Proficient” simply means that you can actually do more or less average work.  You read at grade level and don’t just stumble through it, but get the point.  You can add, subtract, multiple and divide and know why you’re doing that.

Okay, it’s different for different grade levels, but you see what I mean.

“Proficient” is a C on the NAEP ratings, with “Basic” being the category for everybody who does less, which means most people in most schools.

My first reaction to this statement–that “proficient on the NAEP would constitute an A in most American schools–was that there was serious grade inflation going on and we ought to stop it.

Certainly “actually knows the material” ought to be the baseline for a C in any school.

The second thing was the statement that one of the reasons why students were failing these tests in droves (the common core tests) was that teachers weren’t prepared to teach the curriculum, they didn’t have the resources or the training to do it.

I may be vastly misunderstanding what a “common core” is, but if it’s anything in the neighborhood of what it sounds like, then it should be comprised of the general knowledge every educated person should know, with an emphasis on the skills (literacy, numeracy) that make it possible for us to know it.

No person who has graduated from a university–even in a teacher training course–should lack a basic knowledge of an such material.  How we elect the president.  When the Civil War  happened and where and why.  How to get the sum of a column of three digit figures. 

Okay, I could go on all day and not get it all in, but you see what I mean.  Assuming this is what it sounds like,  there shouldn’t be a person teaching in any classroom in the country who doesn’t already know the material.   And if there is, that person ought to be promptly fired.

There is also the matter of “materials,” which is a squishier subject. 

It’s certainly very nice to have lots of spiffy fun materials to work with, and in some subjects (especially on the high school level) some specialized materials are necessary to competently teach a modern course (labs for chemistry and biology, for instance).

But most of the core knowledge we need kids to know has been taught for centuries without anything in the way of materials.  Even textbooks are a relatively new invention.

One of the advantages of a common core ought to be that it would be possible to teach it even if the school lacked much in the way of resources.

Yes, of course, teaching would be better with the materials than without, but I don’t think that being short on resources should derail a common core curriculum that actually is one.

But the big complaint, of course, is that so many students fail, and that the biggest percentages of failures are among African American and Hispanic students.

The writer seems to be completely flummoxed by what is going on here, and what the point of it might be.

If the idea was to make parents feel dissatisfied with their public schools and therefore fuel the growth of the “charter school industry,” it didn’t work, because charter schools did no better than public schools on these tests, and some of the most popular franchise programs (KIPP, for instance) did a lot worse.

What COULD be going on here?

Well,  I don’t actually  know.

But I have my fingers crossed.

Just MAYBE it’s an attempt to get parents to understand that their local school ISN’T giving their kid a good education just because it’s giving him As.

I won’t hold my breath.

But if we reset the standards for high school graduation–and every grade below it–we would also have a situation where most children failed, at least in the beginning.

But we’d at least be getting somewhere.

Written by janeh

August 19th, 2013 at 10:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Damned Awful Cussedness

with 6 comments

Sometimes Sacrosanct Sundays don’t happen because I have too much work to do, and sometimes they  happen because…well, because.

This morning we had a power outage just before seven.  It was a very short power outage, lasting not much more than a single minute, but in that minute it shut down the computer, lost me a page and a half of work, and made a complete mess of my digital devices, or at least the ones that were plugged in.

One of these was the device on which I play my music, which often decides it wants to be unplugged for a good half hour after an electrical event.  On the other hand,  it doesn’t always do that, so I got it ready to go and it looked fine,  no blinking lights, no–

Well, no audio. 

At first there was no audio at all.  Then t here were crackling noises.  Then there was no audio at all.  Then…

Then I unplugged the thing and put the Beethoven on the X Box to play through the television.

This was not the best solution, of course, but at least it was a solution of sorts.  The sound isn’t  the best, but it’s doable.

The big problem is that the son whose X Box it is has the thing set for infinite loop, and doesn’t remember how to turn that off.

So that, at the moment, I not only have Beethoven’s 9th playing at the back of my head, I have it playing over and over and over again.

Which is, of course, what everybody wants first thing on Sunday morning.

Okay.  That will be the end of sarcasm for the morning.

Or maybe not.

 

Written by janeh

August 18th, 2013 at 9:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tools of the Trade

with 4 comments

 So.  I was thinking over the discussion yesterday, and what occurred to me was this:

I don’t think we have a problem in  this country these days with  lots of people thinking work is beneath them, or that it is contemptible in the way Aristotle thought it.

In fact, especially in the United States, we seem to have made a fetish of work.  We boast endlessly that we work longer and harder than anybody else.

The entire CEO, big law corporate lawyer class spends more time in conspicuously working than it does in conspicuous consumption.

Get into the office at six and don’t leave until  midnight?  No problem.  Come in o n Christmas Day to make sure that deal gets done in Tokyo?  Absolutely.

The problem is not that we disparage work, but that an entire class of people–most upper middle class professionals, for instance, and our hyperworking class as described above–think some kinds of work are so mindless that ANYBODY can do them. 

And the class of workers they think this about–plumbers, electricians, mechanics, construction workers–are not only not unskilled, but often are very skilled indeed.

I  invite any of you to learn how to fix your own plumbling.  I know people who’ve managed to do it.  I don’t know a lot of them.

But you can see this attitude driving a lot of law and, worse, a lot of court cases for racial and sexual discrimination–oh, THAT?  Any  idiot off the street can do THAT.  If there’s any kind of disparate impact, the only POSSIBLE explanation is invidious discrimination.

I’m not saying invidious discrimination doesn’t exist.  Of course it does,  in some individual cases.

But the disparate impact rule is curious as much for the way  it is not applied as for the way it is.

The single largest example of a requirement that results in large scale racial disparities is the steadily increasing number of jobs that require “college” as a basic credential.

Not only do “underrepresented minorities” graduate from high school at a far lower rate than Asians and whites, but they graduate from top-tier colleges and universities at an exponentially lower rate.

By the time you get to top tier law and medical schools, or even business schools, you’ve hit tokenism right in the face.

Even so, almost nobody  is arguing that the standards in place in all these things amount to  “institutionalized racism” or that they should be changed so that “underrepresented minorities” can be more fully represented.

And even when somebody does make such an arguement,  it never prevails in court.

Part of that is because of a truism:  you tend to support the system through which you, yourself, were successful.

Judges don’t strike down law school requirements for disparate impact because they’re convinced that law school requirements are fair, just and objective–they’re the same requirements the judges themselves had to meet, and they’re sure they’re important.

But what has made this situation  really dangerous, and really destructive, is the  other half of it–the half that says OUR requirements are legitimate, but THOSE jobs are so stupid they can have no legitimate requirements.  Anybody can do them.  They don’t require intelligence, or knowledge, or skill.

It is under that set of assumptions that we  have seen court rulings and agency regulations that gut the requirements for getting licensed in a slew of skilled trades, and skilled tradesmen’s unions forced to adhere to “goals and timetables” that can only be fulfilled by cheating somewhere along the line to  keep the numbers up.

But  it’s not really that simple, because this is a country that loves lawsuits.

So if you send a guy out to do a job and he does it badly, and an accident ensues (think buildings exploding  in Philadelphia)–your company  is going to be civilly liable, and it’s probably also going to be criminally liable.

So you can’t just cheat. 

And  you can’t get out from under another problem–once you START cheating, you can’t ever hold the line. Once you change requirements in order to get your numbers up, you’ll also get up your numbers of OVERrepresented majorities with qualities you don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole.

The  problem is actually not invidious discrimination, but bad school systems that teach little or nothing.

The sane way to  handle all this would be to demand that even schools in poor and minority districts teach what they’re supposed to be teaching.

But that won’t work, either, not because teachers are sacrosanct, but because the judges and bureaucrats making the decisions HONESTLY don’t believe that the jobs  in question  have any real skill requirements.

Those are stupid  jobs for stupid people.

Anybody can do those.

And t hat’s your cheerful for today.

Written by janeh

August 15th, 2013 at 7:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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